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Rob Davidson

Dr Rob Davidson is a data scientist and transparency campaigner best known for founding Scientists for EU to fight the EU referendum. Current projects include Trade Deal Watch & Liberation inc.

Posts by Rob Davidson

ARIA watching closely?

The government has recently confirmed that its 'high risk, high reward' research agency, the Advanced Research and Innovation Agency (ARIA), will go ahead. This was initially the pet project of Dominic Cummings (alarm bells!) but seems to have survived his departure from Whitehall. The buzz has all been about the potential to cut red-tape and bureaucracy in order to unleash scientific innovation. For a scientist and science fiction nerd like myself, it sounds quite exciting but, Liberals should be wary of anything that reduces oversight and accountability - especially from this government.

The full details of how the agency will work haven't been made clear yet but as the idea is copied direct from DARPA, a US Defence research agency, we can get a sense of where it's going.

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The Tories have just announced a new "free speech champion" and have set new demands on student unions to guarantee a platform to any visiting speaker. Layla Moran, calling this out as a distraction on Question Time, was immediately attacked by the libertarian press (see Spiked Online's take) as "proof" that Liberals aren't truly Liberal. The attack was so swift and loud that Lib Dem HQ deleted their tweet of the clip, much to the glee of right-wing blogs.

It's a shame to see Liberals running from a fight (even if the phrasing was a little clumsy). There is a war going on and, although it's been called a culture war (or a 'war on woke'), it's actually a fight to redefine Liberalism along simplistic, libertarian lines. Liberals must not shy away from it any longer.

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Last week, a 'big poll' predicted that the Liberal Democrats would lose almost all of their seats at the next General Election.  This caused quite a stir on social media. Liberals love to bash their own team and polling results are a regular self-flagellation. But while polls can be very accurate near an election, there are good reasons why we shouldn't fret over them 3 years out - and a clear task for us to focus on instead.

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It’s been said before but now, surely and finally, we are only days away from Brexit. The UK ended its EU membership at the start of 2020, but within the next 4 weeks it will have left the building at last. So, what next for the army of ‘Remainers’ that mobilised in unprecedented numbers to oppose the Conservative Party’s defining, winning yet destructive policy?

Negotiations are on-going but the outcome is far from certain - and whatever is agreed is guaranteed to fall short of what was promised. Regardless, Brexit will be 'completed' within the month - whether we like it or not.

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Support for Scottish independence is growing off the back of Boris Johnson’s handling of Brexit and Covid. Liberals have been pro-devolution but anti-independence for fairly Liberal reasons to date, but has Brexit changed all of that? Is Scottish independence now more Liberal than British unionism?

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There’s a buzz amongst Liberals and lefties of all types: Citizens Assemblies can fix our broken democracy. Green activists think an assembly will help stop Climate Change; the exciting, rebooted Social Liberal Forum wants a “Citizens Britain” with Citizens Assemblies built in to our future democracy. So-called ‘deliberative democracy’ is seen as a solution to the manipulated elections and referendums of recent years. But will Citizens Assemblies improve democracy or will they simply arm populists and ‘illiberal democrats’ with yet another opportunity for manipulation and control?

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Mo’ elections, mo’ problems. This could be the Liberal Democrat motto after a decade of poor performances including three general elections and a referendum in five years. There is a strong need for change somewhere but after a decade of election reviews and no apparent improvement, you’d be forgiven for thinking change is something Lib Dems don’t grasp. And yet, all the signs are there that change is happening, at Lib Dem HQ at least.

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Government incompetence and u-turns over high school results have perhaps dominated this summer’s news cycle, which is no mean feat given the global pandemic, record-busting recession and looming Brexit crisis. The story has hinged upon an ‘algorithm’ or, to quote the Prime Minister, a ‘mutant algorithm.’ Sadly, our cousins over at Scientists for Labour have picked up on this theme too – blaming science and algorithms for political mistakes.

In a recent blog post, Scientists for Labour highlighted how the algorithm worked (quite useful if you don’t want to read 319 pages of Ofqual verbiage) and correctly highlighted how the full processing pipeline applies a sort of smoothing to past performance and is inherently biased in favour of small class sizes at pay-for schools (public/private, you choose your lingo.)

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The inequality in this year’s A-level results has been strongly linked to the performance of an algorithm – the statistical model that the government used to ‘automatically’ upgrade or downgrade results for pupils. While ministers will be called to question, for many it will be the cold, faceless, automated algorithm that is seen as the problem. We, as liberals, must be clear: the A-level disaster is not a programming error; algorithms merely reflect or even enhance the bias of their designers.

The Labour Party has said the A-level algorithm was ‘unlawful’, the FT has described how ‘the algorithm went wrong’ and clearly the process had massively unfair outcomes. Yet, this wasn’t data science gone rogue like Terminator’s Skynet or the ineffable AI in Ex Machina: this was a political choice reflecting political biases.

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